Many lines of data, initial epidemiologic studies as well as subsequent extensive experimental studies, indicate that early-life events play a powerful role in influencing later suceptibility to certain chronic diseases. Such events might be over- or undernutrition, exposure to environmental toxins, but also changes in hormones, in particular stress hormones. Typically, those events are triggered by the environmental challenges of the mother. However, recent studies have shown that paternal environmental or nutritional factors affect the phenotype of the offspring as well. The maternal and paternal environmental factors act on the phenotype of the offspring via epigenetic modification of its genome. The advanced fetal programming hypothesis proposes an additional non-environmentally driven mechanism: maternal and also paternal genes may influence the maturating sperm, the oocyte, and later the embryo/fetus, leading to their epigenetic alteration. Thus, the observed phenotype of the offspring may be altered by maternal/paternal genes independent of the fetal genome. Meanwhile, several independent association studies in humans dealing with metabolic and neurological traits also suggest that maternal genes might affect the offspring phenotype independent of the transmission of that particular gene to the offspring. Considering the implications of this hypothesis, some conclusions drawn from transgenic or knockout animal models and based on the causality between a genetic alteration and a phenotype, need to be challenged. Possible implications for the development, diagnostic and therapy of human genetic diseases have to be investigated.
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